Saturday, November 29, 2008

Twilight - Movie Review

My wife and I went to the Carmike-12 theater near us, as I have four passes I need to use before the end of the year. I was shocked our chosen title was not there, so we raced to the nearby, just-opened Cinemark-14, which had our chosen title on three screens. This was around 6:00, so I got tickets for the 7:30, and then we went out to eat.

It's not reserved so I wanted to make sure we were back by 7:10 to be in line for when seating started. Now this is when I learned that of the 14 screens, 7 of them only seat 112. That ain't big. Had I known that, I might have gone for a different showtime, to see it in one of the 207 or 293 seaters. So they'd already let people into our theater, and we wound up on the third row. Fifth row center is my favorite, but it was fine.


FIRED UP - This formula comedy could have easily been made in 1984 starring Andrew McCarthy and Rob Morrow. Two buddies decide to got o cheerleading school to be amongst all the hot chicks. The two guys are Nicolas D'Agastino and Eric Christian Olsen. Not sure who D'Agastino is but Olsen played young Harry in Dumb & Dumberer. I think they're supposed to be college-age but Olsen looks like he's 30. Sexual hijinks ensue. Looks awful. Opens March 20.

BRIDE WARS - Best friends Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway have dreamed of their perfect wedding since they were little girls, at the Plaza. Then due to a scheduling mishap by Candice Bergen, they get booked on the same day. Each tries to sabotage the other's wedding so they can be the one who has it at the Plaza. Both actresses are doing the formula paycheck thing so they can keep doing their indie projects I'm sure. One scene has Hathaway in full bridal gear bursting on Hudson walking down the aisel with her father, and Hathaway tackles her. No thanks. Opens January 9.

CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC - Isla Fisher, who stole the show in Wedding Crashers, gets the starring role as a shopaholic who must now figure out how to be thrifty once all her cards are maxed out and she finds herself in mountains of debt. In these tought economic times, I don;t really feel like seeing a spoiled rich girl charm her way into getting all her debt paid off. Opens February 13.

DANCE FLICK - This parody movie from the Wayans actually made me laugh out loud a couple times. It's a send-up of Save the Last Dance, Step Up, How She Move, and their matriarch Flashdance, and unlike those Epic Movie yahoos, the Wayans have a plot in mind and clever twists on what they're satirizing. I look forward to renting it. Opens February 6.

PUSH - Heroes: The Movie. Chris Evans can move objects with his mind. Dakota Fanning can see the future. Djimon Hounsou is the big baddie who wants to exploit their abilities. It looks like junky, guilty-pleasure fun, with the potential to be terrible. Opens February 6.

VALKYRIE - Finally we get a genuinely promising movie. I've seen the preview a few times, and I'm already sold on seeing Tom Cruise, Ken Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, et al, plotting to kill Hitler for director Bryan Singer. This is Branagh's third time playing a Nazi that I can think of, but the first time he's one of the good ones. Opens December 26.

And then we got to our feature presentation.

TWILIGHT (***) - Starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Elisabeth Reaser, Nikki Reed, Taylor Lautner, Cam Gigandot and Sarah Chalke.
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke.

My advanced knowledge: I read the first 140 pages of the book, so I had an idea how the first act would go.

Twilight is The Notebook of 2008, a shamelessly schmaltzy romance that is nevertheless entertaining on its own merits. It success hinges on its leads, and I wouldn't say Kristen Stewart (Bella) and Robert Pattinson (Edward) equal Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, but each inhabits their character with just the right amount of quirk and conviction.

17-year-old Bella has moved to Forks, Washington, the most overcast town in the continental US. Her dad is Chief o' Police of this little town, and she has moved here to free up her mother to travel with her new husband. It's a rare movie that shows the teen daughter genuinely getting along with her divorced parents and her new stepdad. Bella suffers new-girl-in-school syndrome, but she makes friends easy enough, except for one exception, the pale Edward Cullen, who acts like he despises her.

After a few days, Edward reintroduces himself, and they start to get along, but when Edward miraculously saves her from getting hit by a van, Bella's mind starts to swim. Who is this guy really?

Those expecting the sex and/or violence associated with recent vampire flicks will be disappointed. Most deaths appear off-screen or cut away right before the killer vampires strike, some of it due to budget and some to keep it in PG-13 bounds so as not to alienate its core audience. It's mainly a relationship melodrama, with two people getting to know each other, where one of them happens to be a vampire.

I look forward to seeing what the bigger-budgeted sequel will do, mostly because my wife enjoyed it so much. Guys, bring a date. Don't be the guy who sees Twilight by himself.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hellboy II - DVD Review

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (**1/2) - Starring Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Jeffrey Tambor, Luke Goss, John Hurt, Anna Walton, James Dodd and Seth MacFarlane.
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro.

Some changes are in place for this sequel, free of the shackles of origin-establishing. Gone is John Myers, the through-his-eyes character from the first one that might have been in the sequel if he'd been played by an actor more famous than Rupert Evans. Gone is David Hyde Pierce's voice for Abe Sapien, for now bodymaster Doug Jones can do it himself. Added to the mix are more goblins and creatures that would have been equally at home in Pan's Labyrinth.

Hellboy's still got working-man troubles, but his agency is under more pressure to keep their existance secret, as YouTube is really making cover-ups difficult. Meanwhile the Prince of the underground creatures has decided that enough hiding, it's time to conquer the surface and the ungrateful humans who walk the Earth.

The movie turns into a colorful explosion of CGI, like a better-produced Spy Kids after a while. The gooey fluidity of it all made me lose interest. If the movie's effects are making me think of Spy Kids movies, that's not a good thing.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed - DVD Review

Directed by Nathan Frankowski.

If you've ever wondered what a right-wing Michael Moore movie would look like, this is a fairly decent example. Moore loves to play fast and loose with facts, inserting snippets of movie scenes or propaganda pieces to invoke an emotional reaction, and so do Stein & Frankowski. Moore likes to be coy and pretend to be a rube, and so does Stein. So why should I take Stein's arguments any more seriously than I do Moore's?

The movie starts out as an examination of how the science community is shunning and firing professors who are open-minded about intelligent design. It slowly builds its case that Darwinists are closed-minded atheist fascists, often showing the Berlin Wall as its metaphor. Darwinists are Soviets guarding East Germany from the evil capitalists of West Germany.

I think an argument could be made for Darwinism and intelligent design overlapping somewhere, but this movie isn't interested in making that argument. It pokes holes in Darwinism without really explaining how intelligent design works. Like Moore's, this movie preaches to its choir, and my skepticism on what Stein was really trying to do came early, when he said mainstream scientists were adamantly opposed to even broaching the subject, and then he has a series of one-liner dismissives. But one of them was Christopher Hitchens, a noted columnist and best-selling author of "God Is Not Great" (an argument for atheism), but I would not call Hitchens an establishment scientist.

So Stein's point ultimately boils down to Darwinists are atheists with their own agenda of killing God, and he's not above comparing how Hitler used elements of Darwinism to support his own Master-Race propaganda. In fact, the Jewish Stein tours a concentration camp site, pondering the Holocaust, and then interviews the author of "From Darwin to Hitler" to talk about eugenics. Yeah, not subtle. It also leads to Darwinist theories justifying abortion, euthenasia, etc. By the time Stein visits Darwin's home, the soundtrack suggests it might as well be Auschwitz.

It was gigantically unfair for Moore to try to blame Charlton Heston for the Columbine shootings in his movie, and even Moore fans pointed that out. I'd say it's equally unfair of Stein to blame Darwin for the Holocaust. And then he loops it back to the scientists, those close-minded liberal fascists who trample anyone who whispers "I.D." Academic Freedom in America is Dead! Da da dummmmm.

But then the real killers comes in, the final interview with atheist Darwinian scientist Richard Dawkins. It's an amiable chat, and if more of the movie had been this, it would have been a better movie. It also reminded me of one of Moore's strengths: his interviews. They're gotcha interviews, but it's always interesting to see who will allow themselves to get caught how. Stein gets a gotcha on Dawkins, where Dawkins admits intelligent design would certainly explain some things (as long as it's not God!)

I tend to like Moore's movies in spite of themselves, and I liked a lot about this movie. But it is what it is, a seriously stacked deck, which seems to be what more and more documentaries are becoming in order to make money.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Quantum of Solace - Movie Review

QUANTUM OF SOLACE (**1/2) - Starring Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, and Giancarlo Giannini.
Directed by Marc Forster.

I'm a big Bond fan. In 1999, for lead-up to The World Is Not Enough, my friend and I watched every Bond movie in order within a month's time. They had to be the Broccoli Bonds, which meant we skipped Woody Allen's Casino Royale and Sean Connery's Never Say Never Again, which was basically a remake of Thunderball. My wife has hated Bond ever since, but it was a great pop-culture overloading experience. (I eventually saw the wacky Casino Royale version. Never saw the black-and-white Jimmy Bond made for American TV in the 1950's.)

Now of Pierce Brosnan's four movies, I consider GoldenEye the best and The World Is Not Enough the worst, although Die Another Day was the movie that had the shark-jumping moment of Bond riding the wave with obvious help from CGI. Bond stunts should always be primarily done by stuntmen so we can believe people could do this. Once CGI-Bond surfed, Brosnan's time as Bond was over.

Which means Quantum of Solace will likely be to Craig what Tomorrow Never Dies is to Brosnan, what Thunderball is to Connery, what The Man with the Golden Gun is to Moore. Not the best of his Bonds, but not his worst, and an easily forgettable chapter in the library. Craig's only had two, and Casino Royale was better, and if QoS winds up being Craig's worst Bond movie, good for him.

This Bond is still bitter over the betrayal and death of his one true love Vespa, and in seeking revenge, he stumbles across an international conspiracy by a multi-fingered power-ring called QUANTUM, which is the 21st century's SPECTRE. We don't know who the head is but I do hope in a couple more movies we learn it's a cat-stroking bald guy named Blofeld. But I digress.

Marc Forster seems like a good, quirky choice to direct a Bond film, and you'd think he'd bring to Bond what Paul Greengrass brings to the Jason Bourne series. Good direction on the acting parts, and quick-choppy editing on the action parts. But for my taste, the action scenes were too choppy and too quickly-edited. Many times I couldn't tell what was going on, to the point that I wished the movie had one or two less action sequences than it did.

The Bond-girl here is a generic model/actress type named Olga Kurylenko. I'd put her on the same memorable level as Carole Bouquet. Who? Exactly. (For Your Eyes Only.) Mathieu Amalric, brilliant in The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, plays the villainous Dominic Greene, who's the corporate backer of a military coup in Bolivia. I thought he did well. I can see why Amalric asked if he could have a scar or something, but his eyes are memorable enough.

As for Bond, my hope for the third movie is he gets his sense of fun back. Craig's Bond is an angry cold-blooded killer, and that's cool and all, but I'd like to see Q show up, see Bond crack a smile here and there. Bourne can be Bourne; now let Bond be Bond.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

War, Inc. - DVD Review

WAR, INC. (**) - Starring John Cusack, Hilary Duff, Marisa Tomei, Joan Cusack, Dan Aykroyd and Ben Kingsley.
Directed by Joshua Seftel.

This satire isn't as clever or timely as it thinks it is. Maybe three years ago it would have felt more so, but its targets are obvious, and the dark humor doesn't translate to laughs very often.

John Cusack works for a company called Tamerline (which seems to be what Halliburton and Blackwater would be if they merged). They're a private company that the US contracts out to conduct their wars for them, and they're run by a former US president, played by Dan Aykroyd, who uses facial tics somewhere between Dick Cheney and Jonathan Winters. Tamerline has conquered the Middle East country of Turaqistan, and Cusack is the assassin/manager running the place.

There's some Dr. Strangelove aims of madness here, but it reminded me more Southland Tales, another ambitiously messy movie. Some ideas work better as ideas than actually acted out, and some are just bad ideas.

Kung Fu Panda - DVD Review

KUNG FU PANDA (***) - Starring Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross and Randall Duk Kim.

DreamWorks's bright and zippy CG-animated tale may have looked slight compared to Wall-E, but I'll take Po the Panda over Shrek any day.

Jack Black is the front-and-center vocal star of this amiable send-up of kung fu movies. Somehow Po stumbles into the middle of a prophecy, and master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) must train this inept, doughy thing into a martial-arts master so he can fulfill said prophecy.

The message - "Believe in yourself" - is simplistic, but I enjoyed Po's unflappable optimism, even as Shifu and all his students are trying to get Po to quit. There's plenty of laughs from the physical humor, in grand Looney Tunes tradition. The budget exceeded $100 million, so the animation is lush and vivid, much better than the quick cheapies like Happily N'Ever After.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Visitor - DVD Review

THE VISITOR (***) - Starring Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbass and Danai Gurira.
Written & directed by Tom McCarthy.

Richard Jenkins is a character actor who's been around for years (Fargo, Step Brothers), but in his first starring role, he proves he has the chops to carry a film. He may be a dark horse for a Best Actor nomination. He plays Walter, a widower and a teacher who's lived life on auto-pilot for years. He reconnects with another human being in Tarek, an illegal immigrant living in his old apartment. At first there is mistrust, but the way the relationship evolves between Walter and Tarek is believable and ultimately rewarding.

Transsiberian - DVD Review

TRANSSIBERIAN (***1/2) - Starring Emily Mortimer, Woody Harrelson, Ben Kingsley, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noreiga and Thomas Kretschmann.
Directed by Brad Anderson.

Horror may be stuck in a rut forever, but the suspense thriller still holds tons of promise. The train has always been a wellspring of claustrophobic potential cinematically, and it's put to good use here.

This might have made more money with a bigger named actress but I loved Emily Mortimer as Jessie. She and her husband Roy (Woody Harrelson) are traveling on a Russian train after a church mission in China when they meet a young couple also traveling. I don't want to give much away from the early moments, as I had no idea what was going to happen when I saw it. Needless to say, Ben Kingsley plays a Russian detective who has interest in this train, and it's unclear who's good or bad for a while, but the movie hinges on Mortimer, who gets herself into some high-suspense moments.

It's an intelligent, thoughtful thriller, with belieavable, breating characters. And a quick check to has it at 92%, so I'm not alone.

Sundance boycott idiocy

I think rational minds will prevail over the initial whisperings of boycotting the Sundance Film Festival over Prop 8 passing. Here's a great blog post that follows the money, state by state:

Hollywood is more likely to hurt the Yes on Prop 8 voters by boycotting the Oscars.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth - DVD Review

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (**1/2) - Starring Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem and Seth Meyers.
Directed by Eric Brevig.

This is an unabashed carnival ride, a roller-coaster tilt-a-whirl of a movie that was probably more fun on the big screen in 3D. In fact, that's my biggest complaint. Amidst a coal-mine ride out of Indy's Temple of Doom and carnivorous plants off Pete Jackson's King Kong island, I kept wishing I could see this thing at 40 feet tall, wearing the glasses. As a 2D DVD, it's merely okay, a kids adventure made palatable by cool if uneven special effects and the can-do light-hearted leadership of Mummy vet Brendan Fraser.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Love Guru - DVD Review

THE LOVE GURU (*1/2) - Starring Mike Myers, Jessica Alba, Justin Timberlake, Romany Malco, Meagan Goode, Verne Troyer, Ben Kingsley, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Jim Gaffigan and Telma Hopkins.
Directed by Marco Schnabel.

The Cat in the Hat is still the worst movie Mike's ever made, but this movie is a hodge-podge of Myers humor crammed together under a thin excuse of a plot, and most of the jokes fall flat. Why would a self-help guru be so mean to midgets? On what planet is Jessica Alba remotely believable as the owner of a hockey team? What is so inherently funny about Ben Kingsley's character having his eyes crossed?

Guru Pitka is hired to help a star hockey player get his confidence back. His methods are unorthodox and arbitrary, and filled with potty humor. Example of the humor level: Justin Timberlake plays a French goalie nicknamed "Le Coq" because of his big you-know-what. Tee hee.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Death Defying Acts - DVD Review

DEATH DEFYING ACTS (**) - Starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Guy Pearce, Saoirse Ronan and Timothy Spall.
Directed by Gillian Armstrong.

It starts out promising enough. It reminded me of The Illusionist and The Prestige with its period approach to magicians, and Guy Pearce is game as Houdini, but the story is really more about the mother-daughter con team of Zeta-Jones and Atonement's Ronan. Eventually, though, Zeta-Jones's Mary falls in love with her mark, Houdini, and the movie gets less interesting as it gets more predictable.

Changeling - Movie Review

CHANGELING (***1/2) - Starring Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly, Colm Feore, Geoff Pierson, Amy Ryan and Denis O'Hare.
Directed by Clint Eastwood.

This movie makes the old-fashioned new again. We have an old-fashioned mystery that spins and spirals into different genres, as the unfolding of the story takes us in new directions.

Except that it's based on a true story. So if you don't already know the events surrounding this tale, I recommend seeing this first and then doing your research. I didn't know, and I was enthralled.

Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother in Los Angeles 1928. One day when she comes home from work, her son is missing. The LAPD won't help in the first 24 hours, but five months later, they claim to have found him in Illinois. Trouble is, the boy is not her son. He claims he is, the police claim he is, and when she continues to protest, the sneering detective has her thrown into an insane asylum.

So we go down a tumultuous road that is reminiscent of One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest, but also has elements of Chinatown and Norma Rae. Jolie, for her part, is great in a role that doesn't have too many notes beyond steely determination. She must say the phrase "my son" over 200 times. Her plight is scary; there is more intensity in the asylum than in 95% of horror films. What I love about Eastwood is his ability to move from genre to genre and master it. I think of how diverse and yet how competant movies like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima and this are. (Although now that I think about it, I wonder if he could pull off a comedy.)

There's a melodrama to it I liked. It follows the 1970's tradition of Act One being setup, Act Two being injustice, and Act Three will either be triumph or destruction. And false endings aside, it squeezed a tear out of me, which movies very rarely do.

And the actual true story could spawn a slew of movies from different angles.